Why Hungry Ghosts Must Keep Flying


In Tibetan paintings, the realm of the hungry ghosts coexists with this one. They fly around and around us, wailing their lack, screaming to be filled. They are pictured with long constricted necks and vast, flapping, empty bellies. There is no way to unknot the neck and receive nourishment, no matter how much – or who – they eat.

Nor can they love another, their hearts being locked around their own need.

Often, in the folk stories, people are reborn as hungry ghosts because of their greed and selfishness. It’s a punishment. But in more sophisticated philosophies of rebirth, the dead are drawn to a way of being that matches their existing energy, that feels familiar to them. This is also another way of understanding karma.

Hungry ghosts flew into my poems because they look like the Birdwoman, a figure who haunted my dreams. For me they have less connection with Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism than with my own syncretic mythology. They are the excluded fairy at Talia’s feast; they are the harpies at the throat; they are the mother whose emptiness is a hole in the world.

Hungry ghosts believe that others have what they do not, and that what they need must come from outside themselves. Their lives are always conditional on others, and thus they can never be happy. Nor do the astonishing joys of the earth speak to them.

Hungry ghosts are my black beasts. From my poor starving mother to the cult leader who ate my life – they keep coming back. I was destroyed, and I escaped and made myself anew, but they smell me out, they circle – I want, I want – and it takes so much energy to fight them, over and over to say No.

I would free them if I could. If unconditionality were a magic potion, if it could fall from the skies like sweet rain.

But I know it doesn’t work like that.

May all beings be happy. I say. May all beings be free.

But we choose who we are. Every day, we choose.

We grow roots deep within ourselves, and day by day, joy by joy, gratitude by gratitude, we grow ourselves human.

Or we don’t.

Here is a poem for the hungry ghosts, from Woman With Crows, where they had their own story to tell.

Why Hungry Ghosts Must Keep Flying

Because they cannot rest

cannot dance strong fishbodies
through long brown kelp

or seep like sun through the tufted fingers of redwoods

cannot breathe through their feet
or sprawl in hot sweet grass sated as seeds

cannot flicker out and in through their fingertips
making cloud-to-cloud lightning along the edges of the world.

And in this place where throats are bells
clamoring the great sounding universe back to itself

they fly with throats clutched close
they drag empty dirigible bellies
their ears are filled with their own keening.


Winter Solstice, 2015

Again, our winter solstice ritual: up at 4 am to drive out to Hilina Pali in the dark pre-dawn. Here in Hawai’i, there is hardly a twilight: it is dark and then one blinks and the sun has risen.

The island permits only amber street lights, so as not to interfere with the deep space telescopes. So it’s very dark.

And this morning it was blackness thick with rain. Lightning flashed across the southeastern sky over the ocean. Then we turned onto a tiny road winding south across the lava and the rain gentled.

At the end of the road we clambered out, Don laden with camera bag and tripod, I clutching my notebook under a giant red rain cape. The sweet smell of molasses grass filled the wet air. In darkness, sitting on a boulder, I breathed sweetness and listened to the rain on my hood and thought about the year that has ended.

So much to regret, so much grief and anger, so much learned the hard way – oh, the hard way, still, after all these years!

Release, release, release. Bless the immense and tolerant and sweet-smelling earth, who takes it all in without judgment and turns it into compost.

I thought of how I want to grow in the new year, intentions and choices and commitments, and planted the seeds in the compost of the letting go.

And then the rain stopped and light broke through. Solstice morning! Light returns! Birds rose and sang and skimmed above the grasses.

I thought of Machado’s lines about “golden bees … making honey from my old failures.” When I got home I read again the whole poem. So today instead of my own poetry, you get pure gold:

Last Night As I Was Sleeping
Antonio Machado, translated by Robert Bly

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

Joyous solstice!


What there is to worship


For all of you, with my deepest gratitude, on this Thanksgiving day.


The storm drives all ashore—thrown stick with dogteeth,
twig of twisted pine,

thumbnail jellyfish with dark sails fallen, fouled ballast, soapy
olivine foam.

Everyone here has the same story.

We are blown here out of sight of ourselves, staggering and dismayed.

Yet we are perfect —
without ladder or pyramid, pinnacle or pietà

perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect—
as one would say this, this, this, this—

seeing, in this dire wind, what there is to worship.

From Crazing, 2015.

Dancing “Grouse Song”

2015 07 08 Jenn studio 014-2


When Don and I arrived at Jenn’s studio, I was only coming to dance with her and other amazing women dancers. Don was only there to try out various options for filming the group, in preparation for a future video of us “dancing my poetry” on the lava at Hilina Pali, or among the koa trees on the northern slopes of Mauna Kea. This was just to be a practice.

I danced with Jenn and the group for an hour or two. Then we came home. Late that day Don called out to me from his workroom. He had discovered a lovely moment – and when I looked at it I realized that it had been, for me, the heart of the dance – and had slowed it just enough to intensify its inwardness, the way it had actually felt.

And out of the blue, the right music had come to him – Kevin Puts’ “Learning to Dance,” played by the Miró String Quartet – not one of the pieces we had originally danced to, but perfect for the moment caught on film.

As soon as I saw it, “Grouse Song” began speaking in my head. This was the poem that expressed what I had experienced in the dance, though I had not gone there to dance this poem.

Nothing had to be edited. Nothing had to be changed. The music and the poem fell into  the space that was waiting for them all along.

So here is a piece that was unintended, unbidden, coming into being of its own inner cohering.





1453383_823978314290536_3631649358917952133_nIn this moment of equipoise, balance of night and day, we await a full moon lunar eclipse – an eclipse of the deep golden harvest moon, so warm and radiant.

I love lunar eclipses, the dark of the moon, the new moon, the winter solstice, all these times of letting go, erasure, darkness and rebirth. How gently we float upon the deep sea of sky, of transformation.

So often transformation means the cracking of the rigid shells we form. I think of the beautiful Japanese practice of mending cracks with gold, kintsugi, and how the threads are the color of the harvest moon.


Veins of gold glow where we’ve broken.

Caught kata of revelation, dance
of ancient flaws, damage and repair.

It is gold that pours
where the bowl of skin cracks:

inside, a sea of light.